From the Nashville Symphony

Reflections on The Jonah People: A Legacy of Struggle and Triumph

It was a madhouse. Half the crowd was shouting in delight; half the crowd was shouting in shock. The roar from these competing forces was so loud that the dancers could not hear the massive orchestra, so the balletmaster screamed out an eight-count beat, which was less than useless against a piece that changed meters as often Ru-Paul changes clothes. This was premiere night.

Hannibal Lokumbe

No, this was not Nashville 2023, this was Paris 1912 when Igor Stravinsky’s controversial ballet Le sacre de printemps [The Rite of Spring] first appeared on stage. The piece was dramatic, heartwrenching, featuring a culture so pagan that they sacrificed a woman, dressed in burlap, forced to dance herself to death for the perceived benefit of society. The ferocious excitement of the music, the fierce rejection of pretty tutus from fellow Russian Tchaikovsky’s immensely popular Swan Lake and Nutcracker—works that came to define classic ballet—divided highly sophisticated, typically unflappable Parisian culture into two camps: love it, hate it.

As a musician, musicologist, music lover, it had always been a fantasy of mine to witness the premiere of a piece that made people care dramatically, a piece representing an earth-shattering change in the way we think about music and theater. At the April 12, 2023 final dress rehearsal before The Jonah People, that dream came true.

Like its predecessor, Le sacre, this piece is dramatic, heartwrenching, featuring a culture so pagan it sacrificed people to the death for the perceived benefit of society. Like his predecessor, Stravinsky, American composer Hannibal Lokumbe writes both ferociously exciting, but also poignantly moving music, fiercely rejecting the artifice of immensely popular fellow opera composers like Wagner, Verdi, and Puccini, who now define classic opera. But the Nashville audience of media representatives and home-schoolers was not divided. All were struck by the power of a new conception of how to tell the history of American tragedy through this historic medium.

As seen in our MCR interview with soprano Karen Slack, Lokumbe’s work is divided into “veils of understanding” rather than acts. The set is an allusion to a giant slave ship, with a semi-transparent scrim at the rear of the stage. Images were projected onto the scrim, but often it was lit so the shadows of the choir behind it could be seen. This effectively gave the impression of slaves in the ship’s hold. The composer’s use of the choir for singing, for declarations, and as the moans of the oppressed captives aboardship was masterful. Sometimes, the important text of the choral music was unfortunately incomprehensible, but other times the powerful chanting made the choir’s contribution to the saga as vital as the tragic text of a Greek chorus or the mourning bench of a Baptist church.

For example, the first scene of Veil 4, which follows the Haitian revolution scene, offers a call and response between Susie, a character representing the composer’s actual ancestor Susie Burgess Peterson, and the choir. Susie, whose spirit is expressed in part by delicate piccolo lines floating above the fray, calls out:

Susie: I am the power to make things right.

Choir: POWER

Susie: I am the power of the sky and the land.

Choir: POWER

Susie: I am the power of the moon and the sea.

Choir: POWER

Susie: I am the power that will always be.

Choir: POWER

Chorusmaster Lloyd Mallory, Jr. and his coaching and prep staff are to be congratulated, as is choreographer Nomalanga Eniafe whose ritual dances intensified Veil 1, dealing with African origins.

Likewise, the costumes designed by Christelle Matou, a native of Paris with familial ties in the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, and sets designed by Shaun Motley and Steve Prince were both poignantly spare and deeply effective. The scene of harvesting sugar cane was notably well-conceived, with minimalist allusions to broad fields of evenly planted plots of cane. My own parents “chopped cotton” in Arkansas, so this resonated with particular vibrancy.

One unique aspect of this work is the wide-ranging melange of musical styles from African drumming, through opera arias, and toward the essence of spirituals, jazz, and blues. Two scenes didn’t quite work, but the disconnects had different causes. The scene of Harlem-based Minton’s Playhouse, a famed jazz club where legends like Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk played in the ’40s, was clearly intended as a vehicle to include the composer, a skilled Jazz trumpeter, onstage as part of the zoot-suited action. But it broke the momentum of the story. And the blues presented in the “Healing” scene was more musically consistent with the rest of the score, yet it was an abrupt change from Minton’s and appeared unstaged with the cast incongruously standing still as they sang this moving music.

But these matters are relatively insignificant. Veil 3 and its depiction of the auction block sales was singularly hard to take, especially because, wisely, the composer did not overdramatize it. The sheer mundane nature of this dehumanization, including the whipping of Asase, enhanced the power of the narrative. The overt drama was left for the scene where the desperate enslaved mother, Asase, repeatedly raped and impregnated by her owner, leaves her family behind, promising them a time of reunion someday. Although the opera title refers to “triumph,” setting the “healing” scene to blues music left a shadow that fell short of redemption.

Poet Ade Johnson, recent first prize winner of the Knoxville Writers Guild’s annual competition, attended the rehearsal with me. She found the announcer’s instruction that those present not clap or respond to be both restrictive and unwise. Performers often learn what works and what elicits an unexpected response during previews. A poet who frequently sings as part of her readings, she agreed that the production contained some flaws but remained potent and profoundly touching.

It might seem to be an awkward time to stage a work on such a topic as America’s slave trade, especially since US ideals of freedom and democracy seem to be in their most fragile state since those days over 150 years ago. Yet perhaps as we grapple with issues left fallow in the fields of the American imagination for too many generations, it is perhaps the perfect time. And perhaps Nashville, representing an evolving Southland, is the perfect place. And perhaps art, the highest expression of human creativity, can lead the way onward and upward through veils of understanding to the better angels of our nature.

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